MOSCOW – In 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Guatemala City to support his country’s bid to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, he knew that winning would be the easiest step in the process. Many joked that only Russia would propose a subtropical seaside resort for a winter-sports competition. But, while concerns about a lack of snow in the surrounding mountains, or about Russia’s ability to build the needed infrastructure in time, have gradually receded since Russia was awarded the games, one major apprehension has remained: the threat of terrorism.
Sochi is located in the North Caucasus region, which, following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, experienced a long and brutal armed insurgency in Chechnya, while neighboring Dagestan, in particular, later became a hotbed of Islamist extremism and terrorism. In fact, Putin gained widespread support among the Russian people through his decisive and ruthless handling of separatism in the North Caucasus – support that helped persuade then-President Boris Yeltsin to appoint Putin as his successor in 1999.
Once in office, Putin – with a military victory and a policy of reconciliation – managed to pacify Chechnya, leaving it more a feudal khanate associated with Russia than a real part of the Russian Federation. As a result, for the last dozen years, there has been peace with – and within – Chechnya.
Terrorism has turned out to be a more stubborn challenge. As the war in Chechnya was drawing to a close in 2002, hundreds of people in a Moscow theater were taken hostage by terrorists from the North Caucasus. Similarly, in 2004, hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan, North Ossetia, were seized by an armed group. The death toll in these two attacks alone topped 500.